Thirty-six years ago, the streets were empty. The National Union of Mineworkers had spent half-a-year working to rule; coal-stocks had slowly dwindled and the power stations had all run out. Factories and offices shut down; everything stopped. Twenty-six years ago, the NUM walked out completely, and stayed out for a year. But nothing except the mines themselves shut down. Thatcher had pre-empted the strike. The mines had been sent into overproduction long before and the power stations all had stockpiles. The country had the means to import coal. And in the mean time, power generation had shifted further into oil, gas and nuclear. The government had made sure that the industrial action could not cripple the country.
Ten years ago today, the streets were empty. The Road Haulage industry, with the support of the petroleum industry, had blockaded the oil refineries and fuel distribution network for eight days, and the country’s petrol stations had been dry for four. The private stockpiles of companies with fleets were running out, and the little that was left had been reserved for the emergency services. Train companies operating non-electrified lines cancelled services — and this time they even had an excuse for it. Tesco began rationing food, and the post went uncollected and undelivered. Hospitals ran out of blood, and Surrey stopped responding to emergency calls.
The air was clean, the birds sang, and the children played in front of their houses.
But as Motorists and hauliers like to remind us in the comments thread every time another bike-vs-truck Grauniad article gets published, we all rely on the roads; you may ride your bicycles and walk around town in your sandals, they say, but those lentils and that tofu still got here in a truck. And indeed, the Institute of Directors promoted the impressive and comprehensively meaningless statistic that the blockades had cost the economy a biiiilion pounds. Our economy and our way of life — for every one of us, even the lentil eating sandal cyclists — is entirely dependent on road transport and road haulage, and they can completely shut it down — the post, the trains, the hospitals and our food — in a week and a half.
After the Battle of Orgreave, when police set upon the striking miners, Thatcher said of the industrial action:
I must tell you … that what we have got is an attempt to substitute the rule of the mob for the rule of law, and it must not succeed. [CHEERS] It must not succeed.
The miners, Thatcher said, were attempting to impose their will on a country that did not want it; they were holding the country to ransom, and that was unacceptable. She had a simple solution that prevented them from ever doing that again. She destroyed them by completely cutting the country’s reliance on domestic coal — by destroying their power and their industry.
On the 14th September 2000, Tony Blair said of the refinery blockades:
No government, indeed no country can retain credibility in its democratic process or its economic policy-making were it to give in to such protests. Real damage is being done to real people.
The hauliers were attempting to impose their will on a country that did not want it; they were holding the country to ransom, and that was unacceptable. Those sound like the words of the sort of politician who would take serious action to reduce the dangerously bloated power of a single industry — an industry on which we all rely, but on which we do not need to rely. You would expect that the fuel protests would have added extra urgency to the already compelling case and myriad reasons in favour of reversing the harmful growth in car and road haulage dependency.
Perhaps you would expect them to have electrified all the mainline railways by now? Maybe they would have constructed a new high-speed north-south rail artery to free up the saturated West Coast Main Line for freight? How about new rail freight distribution infrastructure in urban goods destinations? You would certainly have expected them to look at reforming the planning laws, transport infrastructure, tax and regulation that were making it attractive for cities and businesses to carry on creating new dependencies on cars and hauliers, and unattractive to reduce them — the sort of reforms that would reverse the absurd development that now makes it easier for food stores to create national mega-distribution hubs than to stock the food made down the street.
You certainly wouldn’t expect to see a great shift in modal share towards road haulage. You wouldn’t predict rail freight stagnating for want of line capacity and end-to-end infrastructure. You wouldn’t expect supermarkets entrenching their dependency on long-distance road haulage with ever greater centralisation. You’d never believe that the Royal Mail would abandon those few things that did keep the post moving during the blockade — the Travelling Sorting Office trains, London’s awesome underground Mail Rail, and the simple delivery bicycle.
|Trend 5.2 – Domestic freight lifted by mode: 1980 to 2008|
|Coverage: Great Britain|
|Source: Department for Transport (road and water), Office of Rail Regulation (rail), and Department of Energy and Climate Change (pipeline)|
The 2000 fuel crisis was a wake up call. Happily for the contently sleeping politicians and planners, it came with a snooze button.